Ancient History & Civilisation

Berenice & Titus:
Jewish princess almost makes empress

A romantic at heart, gorgeous and zaftig Berenice didn’t plan on being married thrice and widowed twice. She didn’t plan on committing incest, either. Things just worked out that way.

Berenice belonged to the elite Herodian clan, a dynasty that had ruled the Jews for over a century. Over time, many of the Herodians had lived in the imperial household in Rome and had gotten educated with the emperor’s kids, but Berenice did not get that luxury. Chased by creditors, her hapless dad, Agrippa, shuttled the family between Palestine, Syria, and Judaea province until A.D. 37, when their luck suddenly changed.

A new Roman emperor, Caligula, occupied the imperial chair. Being a longtime pal of her dad’s, he appointed Agrippa to govern chunks of the province of Judaea. On the heels of that announcement, she had a marriage offer from the richest Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt. Since Berenice hadn’t hit puberty yet, the wedding was scheduled for A.D. 41, when she would turn thirteen.

That same year, Caligula was assassinated and Claudius became the Roman emperor. This continued Berenice’s streak of luck, since Claudius was another one of Dad’s friends, made during his Roman childhood. Berenice was only halfway through her teens when her first spouse died. The family wasted no time in arranging another marriage, this go-round with her own uncle Herod. No spring chicken, Herod, but he did his best, giving Berenice two sons. Unfortunately, the strain of having toddlers and a teenage wife-niece put him in the grave four years later.

Now a woman, Berenice eagerly moved in with her brother Agrippa II, a year older than she. Before long, ugly rumors of incest surfaced, but Berenice took it in stride, having already committed incest with husband number two. Eventually Berenice asked her brother to find her a decent new mate. Somebody with a little spark and longevity would be grand, she thought.

He came up with Polemo, the king of Cilicia (in modern-day Turkey), who seemed to enjoy her sexy dowry more than he did her. Into divorce court she went, and back to cohabit with her brother, gossipers be damned.

With her wealth, intelligence, and gift for diplomacy, Berenice gradually found herself doing meaningful work as an active philanthropist and an ad hoc arbitrator between Jewish and Roman factions. Eventually she was looked at as an equal partner in co-rule with her brother Agrippa. From time to time, she fretted about her personal life; she wasn’t getting any younger. But she, like all Jews, had bigger issues to worry about. For some time, the Romans had discriminated against the Jews, favoring Greek populations in the Holy Land.

Things got uglier when a Roman-appointed governor stole from the temple in Jerusalem. The Romans crucified the leaders of the ensuing riot. Although Berenice and her brother pleaded with the Roman authorities on behalf of the Jewish population, their efforts went unheeded. As the situation grew more intense, the Jewish insurgents turned against the Herodian families and burned down their palaces, citing their close ties with the Roman imperial families. Berenice kept trying to negotiate on behalf of the Jews but was nearly killed in one of the skirmishes roiling throughout the city.

By A.D. 66, a rebellion was in full swing; the Romans responded harshly, sending General Vespasian and later his son Titus, along with 60,000 seasoned soldiers, to crush it. After three years of merciless siege, the Romans retook Jerusalem. And Rome (along with the Jews) had a new emperor: Vespasian himself.

Bernenice’s entire family had fled north to the Galilee. The war came to an end at a heinous cost: the holy city of Jerusalem sacked, countless dead, and nearly 100,000 Jews taken as prisoners of war.

Amid the carnage, somehow Berenice met the man she’d been longing for. It was the emperor’s son Titus, eleven years her junior, who would later be called “the delight and darling of the human race,” a genial man gifted with extraordinary personal empathy. Two nations at odds and different religions separated them, but it did not seem to matter. They fell deeply in love. As deft with languages as he was keen in military matters, Titus wrote poetic verse, played the harp, and sang to her.

They had a mere year or two together in Judaea before he was called back to Rome to assist his father Vespasian in the monumental task of governing the empire.

Berenice and Titus did not see each other for four years. In A.D. 75, she and her brother Agrippa II came to Rome. Very soon she was living openly and lavishly with Titus in the palace. Their love was still ardent, but their lives were not without unpleasantness.

People had long memories. Romans saw her as “Little Cleopatra,” an echo of the foreign queen who’d tried to co-opt the empire and its ruler. The public gossiped and fumed over her “barbaric” jewels, particularly a huge diamond she often wore. Titus and Berenice were publicly denounced by outspoken philosophers, and when Titus punished those who trash-talked his love, it made the situation worse. Finally, Emperor Vespasian, who’d always liked Berenice, regretfully ordered Titus to dump her.

In terms of influence and political pull, Berenice of the Herodians was at her most powerful but Roman public opinion trumped true love. As the historian Suetonius said in his biography of Titus, “He sent her away though he was unwilling and so was she.”

She’d had just two more years with her lovely prince. But leave she did, with dignity. When Vespasian died in June of A.D. 79, however, she hurried back to Rome. A fresh start! Now her lover would put things right, convince the world that they belonged together. He didn’t. He sent her away again, mumbling platitudes about “timing” and “public perceptions.”

Time, fate, and circumstance were no longer their allies. Two months after her arrival in Rome, Mount Vesuvius erupted, creating a national disaster that Titus had to handle immediately. On the heels of it, a massive fire hit Rome, followed by a deadly wave of plague. Titus had his hands full. He did all he could to comfort and console his people.

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Rome’s Colosseum, originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, played a part in the ill-fated romance between Titus and Berenice.

It wasn’t enough—so he gave them entertainment. The Flavian Amphitheatre (known to us as the Colosseum), begun by Titus’s dad and dedicated to him, had finally reached completion in A.D. 80. To cheer the battered spirits of the Romans, Emperor Titus immediately held one hundred days of games in the arena, the most elaborate and costly bloodfest ever witnessed.

Berenice tried to comfort herself about the realities of rule that her lover faced. He would send for her later, when things got back to normal. Normal never arrived, however. On a September day in the year 81, Titus died suddenly of a fever. He was forty-two. His grieving lover Berenice, now fifty-three, disappeared from public notice, the rest of her life unremarked to this day.

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